Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Selected Stories of Patricia Highsmith: The Black House

The Black House
by Patricia Highsmith

Finally, a break from the constant murderin’. Oh sure, people still die, but The Black House features fewer sudden blows to the head. Most of the time, the characters act with good intentions, only to have their situation spin out of control. After the unpleasantness of Slowly, Slowly in the Wind, I welcomed the change. Reserving judgement for the as-yet unread Mermaids on the Golf Course, this is so far my favorite of the short story collections.

Genuine suspense fills the plots, like in “When in Rome,” where a woman decides to payback her inattentive husband by having him kidnaped by an admirer. “The Kite” talks about a boy who deals with his sister’s death by making a gigantic kite in her honor, and what happens when he runs into interference. In “I Despise Your Life” (possibly a winner for interest-piquing titles), a young man tries to impress his father with his new bohemian lifestyle.

The title story, in a way, is an old-fashioned haunted house tale, even if the haunting has nothing to do with ghosts:

“There is something funny about the house,” Ed Sanders said dreamily, perched on a bar stool. “It looks haunted — you know? The way that roof and the chimney tilts at the top, as if it’s about to fall down on somebody.” Ed saw his wife approaching, and was sorry. He was having a good time taking about the black house. It was like being in another world, like being a boy again, twelve years old perhaps, and not a thirty-nine-year-old man with a growing paunch, knowing all about life, and more than enough.
— “The Black House

Very nearly was that my favorite out of the eleven stories, but “Blow It” edged out in the lead. In that, a man tries to make the decision between two women he’s been dating, each perfect in their own way, when suddenly he has an offer to buy an equally perfect house just outside of New York City. Sounds simple enough, but the way Highsmith let his inner monologue unfold was just as suspenseful as “The Black House.” And perhaps since this story was a little closer to my literary neck of the woods — love and self-sabotage — I grew more attached.

If I had to pick a weak point in the book, I’d give it to “The Terrors of Basket-Weaving,” though perhaps it wins for most amusing title. Still, it’s blessedly short, and soon you’re on to the much better “Under a Dark Angel’s Eye.” Unlike the previous collections I’ve reviewed, The Black House is likely the one that’s most appealing to a wider audience — entirely compelling and complex, in an easy bite-size form.

Book # 10/52
Read as part of a 700+ page collection of stories, but this book was published on its own in 1981.

Photo by Tyson Habein

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. The challenge ends October 31, 2010.

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